Fantasia Film Festival 2021: The Story of Southern Islet (2020)

The Story of Southern Islet (2020)

Director (and writer): Keat Aun Chong

Cast: Jojo Goh, Season Chee, Hong Herr Wong, Wei Hern Teoh, Ling Tang, Pearlly Chua, Mei-Sim Hoon

Cheong, a Chinese man, falls sick after a row with his neighbour. His wife Yan is desperately looking for a remedy to cure her husband. Throughout the journey, Yan endures strange encounters and unearthly experiences. Finally, Yan is convinced that she should seek help from the village shaman. Mysteries, legends and shamanism surround Yan with unknowns yet to be solved. – IMDB

The Story of Southern Islet is a 2020 fantasy drama with folk elements to it based on an autobiographical childhood experience from the director Keat Aun Chong. Not to mention this film is also his directorial debut. When talking about deities, it also stems into belief and faith and with this, a man who may or may not be cursed. Malaysia history or geography is a blind spot in my knowledge however, the setting here depicts a sensitive location set in the mid 1980s near Mount Keriang where the crossover of spirituality converges not only in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islamism but also shamanistic cultures.

As much as the film is about the people, its really a stepping stone to the introduction of these deities who each have their purpose even if it feels rather odd. The whole world isn’t exactly filled with danger and yet brings to life certain “superstitions” and their consequence. Each laying the different purpose confirming the belief in gods that bless different things really do exist much like the paddy rice field deity. It is the most enchanting to watch as Yan unknowingly encounters these different ones as the different stories come forward, the most notable at the shrine in the mountain cave about Princess Keriang.

The cinematography in this sequence is especially compelling. Much like the rest of the film which almost always has this off-centered frame for its shot which sometimes highlights what’s off screen but also for some, it also creates this symmetry or has this division of what can be seen and not seen by the characters. Not to mention that all this is held together by the beautiful area that it is set in.

The small town setting is perfect for this tale as it spans over the farmlands, rice paddies, mountains and caves. There is this emptiness and isolation in its setting. That does carry to the wife who is dealing with this as she encounters different people in a religions that she doesn’t quite believe, each performing their rituals or telling her what to do next. Whether its the shamans or other religious leaders, it leads her further down into this other spiritual world as the medical doctors can’t seem help her husband who gets worse day by day.

Overall, The Story of Southern Islet is a unique film. It dives into a world that is not commonly explored in films (and if they are, not on an international level, at least to my knowledge). Not completely unexplored as coughing nails was also used as a curse in an indie video game Home Sweet Home a few years back. However, the different stories of these deities are quite interesting. The film isn’t about its living characters so much as its about the different deities that get shown on screen, perhaps making the final reveal of what is cursing her husband so much more intriguing. Its a beautiful film with both a subtle haunting feeling and a fairy tale/mythical setting but growing with in an Asian culture, there are many unbelievable beliefs that seems ridiculous to some as it can’t exactly be explained but doesn’t deny the fact that its an experience unique to them, whether you believe it or not as the reality.